Kyiv, Ukraine and The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone: Europe’s Most Unusual City Break

Telling people I was visiting Kyiv on holiday became my new favourite thing to do; their mild confusion and surprise grew to be quite enjoyable – ‘Ukraine… really?’.
I wasn’t going to Ukraine just because I’d found cheap flights, or because I wanted to ‘check off’ new country, or because it was ‘a bit different’ (though all three are true), but I’d heard so many good things about what an interesting and surprisingly modern city Kyiv actually was, plus I was a little curious about touring the nearby Chernobyl nuclear plant.
Kyiv had been at the top of my list for at least a year, and, half due to end-of-March Brexit uncertainty, we used the UK’s inability to make up their mind to venture somewhere outside the EU (just in case!), and we finally got the perfect opportunity to book up a four day trip to Ukraine’s capital.
So, is Kyiv the interesting destination I was promised?

Exploring Kyiv: What to See & Do

Hang Out In Independence Square

This location has been known as quite a few different names under Russian-Soviet rule, but Independence Square or ‘Maidan Nezalezhnosti’, as it’s now called, since Ukraine’s Independence in 1991, is now the beating heart at the centre of Kyiv. It still plays host to the odd political protest, but it’s also home to Kyiv’s main shopping street which stretches outwards from the square.
Perfect examples of grandeur, blocky-grey Soviet-style buildings stand around the perimeter square, and sure, it isn’t what many would regard as being ‘pretty’, but what this area might lack in looks, it compensates by being the life of the city.
Street vendors, groups of tourists, performers, artists, dancers – a melting pot of cultures coming together at the cross section of the capital. It’s here where we found loads of restaurants, bars and hotels, and the meeting point for our free walking tour.

Visiting the Churches of St Michael & St Sophia and exploring Volodymyrska Hill

I’m so easily impressed with a good church. You’d have thought that with all the travelling I do around Europe I’d have gone a little church-blind, but nope, Kyiv’s set of gold-tipped-wonders are certainly must the some of the most beautiful examples of architecture in this part of the world.
Kyiv was also the first chance I’d had to get snap-happy with my new camera, so I think I overdid it when I crammed my memory card with at least a hundred photos of the beautiful blue St Michael’s church.
St Michael’s lies at the opposite end of the road to the equally stunning St Sophia’s. Its seemingly pristine condition is attributed to the fact that the church we now see is a painstakingly reconstructed replica following the destruction of the original building by the Soviet government for having ‘no historical value’.
Heading just behind St Michael’s is Volodymyrska Hill, you’ll find a sprawling park high up above the Podil district – on a good day you can see for miles across Kyiv, from the leafy balcony above the Dnieper River. A funicular connects the park to the banks below.

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Visiting St Andrews Church & Andriyivskyy Decent

Another stunner. I couldn’t pick a favourite between St Michael’s or this church, St Andrews. This turquoise beauty stands at the beginning of Decent, one of Kyiv’s oldest and best known streets connecting the Upper Town to the Podil district beside the bank of the Dnieper River. The steep and winding cobbled street actually has a distinctive hipster feel with independent coffee shops lining the road, in-between galleries and bric-a-brac stalls, spattered with Matryoshka doll sellers and tables offering other tourist trappings. It’s worth making it all the way down the bottom of the street, seeking out the different street art, culminating in this full sized mural painted on the gable end of a set of flats; ‘Revival/Renaissance’ shows a girl in traditional Ukrainian dress, protecting her city.

Discovering Kyiv’s Children’s Landscape Park

Our walking tour guide was a perhaps a little over eager when she described this place like Kyiv’s version of Barcelona’s Parc Guell. It’s not, but I understand where she was coming from. Still, I didn’t want to miss this place, because where else would I get a selfie with a mosaic cat wall?
A Cheshire Cat grins from the top of children’s climbing frame, next to a rabbit in an Elizabethan neck ruff. It’s a little ‘trippy’, I’ll give it that.

Arsenalna – The World’s Deepest Metro Station & Mariyinsky Palace

World’s deepest metro station? Right here in Kyiv. If that’s not on your bucket list, I demand to know why not!?
Okay, sure, It may not be the catalyst for wanting to take a flight to visit this city, however, as someone who gets a little kick out of stuff like this, I deliberately took a minor detour via this station, which sits at 346 ft deep, just to experience the seemingly endless escalator tunnel. For the London Underground fans among my readers, It really does put Angel tube station to shame….
Fortunately for those who don’t quite experience the same high from really long tunnels, just down the road from Arsenalna is the Mariyinsky Palace. This baroque building, along with the surrounding gardens and streets make up one of the more ‘grander’ areas of the city, and is definitely worth visiting.

Experiencing Kievo-Percherskaya Lavra and Caves

Visiting the Lavra Monastery and the adjoining catacombs was an immersive and unique experience. I had this marked on my map as a must-see attraction, but failed to do any real research before hand, so when I arrived I was staggered to see the size of this complex; above ground I found expansive gardens and incredible whitewashed churches, and below ground found a labyrinth of candle-lit underground caves with mummified monks. It’s far from being just an interesting place to go and see, as the network of caves draws in hundreds of worshippers keen to pay their respects to the deceased.

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Best Places to Eat and Drink in Kyiv

Where To Go In Kyiv For Craft Beer: Taphouse by Collider

Just down the road from the Golden Gate, and conveniently for us, just a short walk / stumble home to our apart-hotel, was Taphouse. This super cosy, welcoming, back-street vault-style craft beer pub had a solid selection of international and local beers and some well-received beer snacks (corn-flake clustered, fried cheese sticks, anyone?). Deciphering the tap beer board was another story, considering as I understood no Ukrainian and their Cyrillic alphabet is pretty far removed from ours in the UK, but perhaps the friendly bar staff took pity on us and were on hand to explain the beers and recommend a few of the local Ukrainian varieties.

Where To Go In Kyiv For Coffee and Light Bites: Aroma Kava

It’s no exaggeration that it’s impossible to walk a few dozen yards before reaching another coffee stall or café in Kyiv. These guys really have a thing for the bean.
If you love your caffeine, you’ll feel right at home in this city, and in our few short days in Kyiv we became regular customers of the coffee chain Aroma Kava. Aroma Kava is to Kyiv as Pret a Manger is to London; they’re literally on every street corner, so if we needed a energy-boost mid-sightseeing, we’d dive into the nearest shop or pit-stop at one of their many stalls and grab a Cappuccino.

Where To Go In Kyiv For Craft Beer: Pivna Duma

Furthering our quest for more craft beer, we sought out the centrally located Pivna Duma just off Independence Square. In this swish, modern brewpub, we were excited to discover that they brew and serve their own variety of beer – with a choice of light, wheat or dark, and a seasonal option, alongside an excellent food menu, that is a cut above your average beer-snack selection (we couldn’t resist the Camembert!). We later found out that this place is just one of many, in a network of beer-restaurant establishments, and Pivna Duma is one of the largest craft breweries in Ukraine!

Where To Go In Kyiv For Cheap Local Beer and Pub Grub: Copper Pub

Sometimes all you need is something unpretentious; a cheap pint and good pub-grub. Following a long days’ sightseeing we retired to a corner in the busy Copper Pub, just off to one side of Independence Square. Copper Pub appears to be fashioned on a traditional British-style drinking hole, with simple décor, Sports TV and a modest selection of lagers, beers and spirits – with one big draw; it’s open 24/7! Of course, this is miles away from the craft beer joints that I like to frequent, but Copper Pub gave us a taste of why a lot of people come to Ukraine – pints for less than a pound and the lively nightlife!

Where To Go In Kyiv For A Traditional Food Experience: Mitla & Korchma Taras Bulba

I had no doubts about Kyiv’s ‘traditional’ cuisine. Similar to other Eastern European foods, it was all meaty, super carb-heavy and I had my eye on their beetroot soup (borscht) – we were encouraged to have this as a starter followed by a double shot of the local spirit (!), and Ukrainian filled dumplings (varenyky). I visited both Mitla and Korchma Taras Bulba, and sure, they are both geared towards the tourist clientele (expect traditional folk music, dancing, and some seriously good selfie opportunities when you’re offered the chance to don a over-sized floral headdress… really!) but both of these restaurants were the perfect places to try some proper Ukrainian dishes, and have some serious fun when doing so.

Where To Go In Kyiv For Street Food: Kyivska Perepichka

After spotting this Kyiv street food destination on a few travel vlogs about the city, we knew we had to try this Ukrainian take on the classic hot dog. Found in a hole-in-the-wall type gaff, you can hand over the equivalent of roughly 40p for a hot dog encased in a fried doughnut-like dough, served in a modest plastic bag. It’s crazy cheap, pretty unhealthy, super-simple, and I’m well aware this doesn’t sound appetising in the slightest, but somehow it totally hits the spot.

Where To Go In Kyiv For Sweet Treats: Lviv Handmade Chocolate

Saving the best for last? A couple of years ago I visited Warsaw in Poland and discovered E.Wedel chocolate houses, which I swore blind was the best damn chocolate I’d ever tasted. Now, after the experience of Lviv Handmade Chocolate, I just can’t pick a favourite. I was straight to the mixed melted chocolate drink and a small selection of their handmade truffles, both of which had to be consumed super slow because of how ridiculously rich they were. City breaks are for treating yourself, I didn’t want a waistline anyway, right?

Beyond Kyiv: A Day trip to Chernobyl and Pripyat

Chernobyl, the site of the nuclear reactor disaster of 1986 is a short two hour drive north of Kyiv, and it’s now possible to take organised tours within the exclusion zone that allow you within a few hundred feet of the reactor and show you around the former town of Pripyat, including that infamous abandoned fairground.
Sure, these types of tours certainly fall under the realms of ‘dark tourism’, and I’d be right to assume that a day visiting a nuclear plant and a crumbling, radioactive, abandoned village isn’t everyone’s idea of time well spent, however I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity to get up close to the location of one of the world’s most catastrophic disasters in recent times. It was pure curiosity; I wanted to know more about what happened and learn about how the area has evolved since.
We bought our tickets via Solo East, purchasing our slots a few days before we flew out to Ukraine, to make sure we had time to submit our passport information and confirm our space on the tour.

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This tour has spiked in popularity after the highly rated HBO series ‘Chernobyl’, and since this, has prompted discussion about if we should be visiting and if we do, how we should be visiting. The Chernobyl tour itself is hugely educational and it’s a constant struggle to wrap your head around the fact you’re standing in shadow of one of the greatest disasters in our recent history – a global event that changed the course of Soviet ruling forever. The tour I took was very respectful and the guide was careful to explain the sacrifices and applaud the bravery of those involved, and although much of the tragic consequences are discussed, nothing is overly glorified for the sake of getting a reaction; the reality of the situation is hard-hitting enough. It should go without saying that anyone visiting the area should be hyper-aware of the horrifying events that occurred within the exclusion zone; whether that be the workers that perished in the aftermath of the explosion, understanding that thousands of families were displaced from their homes or realising the effects of the countless others whose health was affected by the radiation.

Personally, I don’t find an issue with taking photographs, however, I would agree that certain types of ‘selfies’ may not be appropriate. And I don’t know about anyone else, but ‘souvenir’ stalls by the check points left me feeling uneasy; I’m not sure if anyone wants to be purchasing ‘I survived the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone’ t-shirts, or a pack of condoms with a ‘Caution – Radioactive’ stamped across the top…
That aside, it’s all about attitude; as long as us tourists can understand and respect the gravity of the disaster and the tour guides are able to continue to manage the tone and lead a tour of education and reflection, then I’d really encourage taking a similar trip! After all, the fantastic thing about travel is being able to experience something first hand and gain that deeper understanding and appreciation.

Have you ever travelled to Ukraine? Would you visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone? 

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Writer of This F.P. Planet travel blog. Proud dachshund mother. A Real weakness for craft beer and cheese boards...

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